(by Micah Sam)
I was sitting in the cafeteria on Base when the bombs began to fall, and the City and my life were changed forever. Terrorist attacks were nothing new, ever since the early 21st century, and the City had had its share of scares, threats, aborted missions, captured suicide bombers and suicide bombers who weren’t captured. The latter took out children, deli workers, businessmen, wives, husbands, whites, blacks, Asians, Jews, Christians, Muslims, homeless, rich and poor indiscriminately. The worst were the Subway attacks, and I had only seen one in person, when I was five. I remember, out of the dust and orange glow of the wreckage, a man running past with only one arm, clutching a briefcase with his remaining hand as if it were life itself, his tie mangled and still on fire flapping behind him. His eyes were intent and unfocused, pupils jacked and dilated, and he looked like he was running late for a meeting with some high powered executive, the pain and lack of limbs no contest with the promise of potential upward mobility. I’m sure it would have made a splendid commercial. “Sun Kyu investments: On Time . . . No Matter What”
These were terrible atrocities to be sure, but the City adjusted over time. The grand organism shifted and covered its metal wounds with more metal, rebuilt and replaced the human casualties with more human bodies. Stocks fell and rose, corporations were scandalized, bought out, merged into ever larger corporations. Traffic patterns changed to accommodate new buildings and new wreckages, and all in all, life went on pretty much as usual. But, of course, that all changed when they used the MDW’s, and in more ways than most people ever realized.
The first thing I noticed was the lack of murmurs, the white noise of a hundred human voices fading into the random sounds of silverware clinking against plates, and those sounds fading into nothing, while the TV’s jabbered on, unimpeded, with their own unique static. That day the quality of the static was an undulating wave of discomfort, brought on by the rapidly approaching deadline levied upon the U.S. by the Western Asia Coalition of Independent States. Set to expire at 0800 hours, WACIS had declared that if all U.S. military had not removed themselves at least 100 miles from the shoreline of the combined States they would launch a multi-pronged attack on the City and all its inhabitants. Some people dismissed this as a power play, believing that no country, or group of countries, would be insane enough to follow through with such a plan. Still, in the interest of safety, and in response to military intelligence which indicated that, indeed, forces were mobilizing to enforce just such an attack, the City had taken huge steps to evacuate as much of the populace as it could; at least, as much as were willing to go. Some people stayed behind because they just didn’t believe it was possible. Some thought, like a thousand captains on a single, massive sinking ship, that they would go down with the titanic beast they called their home, and the rest of the world be damned. Still others remained in a silent protest to terrorism, war, and death itself.
Some people didn’t leave because they couldn’t: the mentally ill, the poor, the homeless.
To be honest, truly honest, I don’t think I really believed it myself. An overseas attack against the most advanced military nation in the world was political, economical, and literal suicide. Even when the satellites picked up the fourteen silos rising out of the desert I still didn’t believe it, and regardless, the space program had been outfitted with anti-missile measures as our ace in the hole. It would have been fine with just fourteen, but when the fourteen split into 28, and the 28 split into 56, and the 56 split into . . . well, it was just too much.
We watched as the pinpoints of crimson light on a massive topographic display arced over the oceans as other points of blue light from high above intersected them. There was a cheer every time another flash of crimson winked out, but as the lights crept closer it became apparent we wouldn’t get all of them, and the cheers began to fade, from sighs, to sobs, to nothing. Finally, in that dead silence, we watched newsfeeds from stationary cameras in the City as the sky lit up with white light. The last thing I remember seeing before the cameras turned to static was a ring of pacifists sitting crossed-legged in the center of an eerily empty street, mouths open to a song I could not recognize. Something lilting and unmelodic and unforgettable. Then it was all grey lines and flecks of light coating a grey room with grey faces.
The reverberations from that day echoed farther from the center of that blast than anyone could realize at the time. The City was an archetype for this age, and it towered in the minds of the country the way a crucifix used to do in churches (before Neo-Christians replaced it with the more PC, kindler, gentler, Tri-Torch™). For the displaced there was the loss of a home, jobs, a life. For everyone else, there was the image of the City which had been so entrenched in their animal mind through television, cinema, satellite radio, billboards, blogs, podcasts, webshows, and all forms of media, that its violent destruction was like killing a God and forcing its bloody remains down your throat. People went about their business in a daze, numb and glassy eyed. Many found themselves restless, and when the opportunity came to volunteer to secure and clean up the City, I jumped at the chance. I thought it would be a way to heal the breach that I felt inside myself at the utter annihilation of my childhood home, a way to face the horror of it and conquer it. A military man’s way of facing things, without a doubt, and in the end, foolish. Utterly foolish.
Everyone thought it would be a routine cleanup mission on a vastly grander scale. I was assigned to a unit comprised of thirty-five men, many of whom seemed to be linked directly to the City like myself. Jones Freemont, for example, was a native who had moved out only three months before the attacks to start his second tour in the reserves in Florida. Todd and Jonathan were a couple who had met in the City, traveled the world on the Military budget, and had retired five years before. Lucius, who we only addressed as “Junkyard” due to his collection of dog tags, was ex-special forces who kept mostly to himself. The only time I saw him show a hint of emotion, even during the worst of what was to come, was one night when I came upon him, blind drunk, smashing his already scarred fists into the ground, screaming a woman’s name I don’t even remember. I didn’t know what to do, so just turned away from the sickening sound of flesh and bone slamming into concrete. I heard, later, that he had lost his wife in the blast. Apparently she was one of the pacifists, and I couldn’t stop wondering if she had been one of the people I had seen on the screen right before the static took over. Unlikely, sure. But I still couldn’t stop thinking about it.
We talked about the things we remembered about the City, meaningless things you would have taken no notice of on any ordinary day. Street vendors selling hot shitty food on a cold winter’s day, how they overcharged tourists who didn’t know better, the rows of fake watches, imitation I-stims, and sunglasses being sold by people who would actually haggle over the price of a simple sweater. We laughed about the ethnic sections, about how the Asian areas were as crowded as their home countries, how you could find any movie in theatre on the street within a day, and how you’d buy it even though you could just as easily download on Highband, just because you could. Instant gratification is an evolutionary trait ensuring the continued success of black market economies around the world.
Things started to get strange when we were let off transport at the main base. For a job this huge I expected to see at least 200 platoons gathered, but when we got there, there was only about 50 or so groups of 35 being ushered into what looked to be a makeshift white housing unit. The whole thing was huge and boxlike, much larger than it needed to be to house the number of people around. It was also seemed to have much higher security than what a cleanup and reconnaissance called for. There were no windows to speak of, just small slits in the walls that looked like disc drives on old computers. Something just felt wrong, and the base structure gave off a sanitary antiseptic feeling, like an abandoned insane asylum. You could tell all the men felt the same way, and there were slight bursts of laughter from some of the younger crew as we approached. When we had our retinal scans completed we were quickly ushered into a plastic contamination-proof airlock. There were two paths inside to the compound, the one of the right led to our quarters. Through the plastic I could see a long tunnel on the left stretching like an umbilical cord to an unknown room, with lights blinking rhythmically in the distance.
There was an oppressive silence that hung over the barracks that night; nobody wanted to ask any questions, because nobody really wanted to guess at the answers. Something was definitely strange, and in the wake of the attacks, everyone was tired but on edge, gearing up for the next couple of months. We all figured it would take at least half a year to finish the job and that once we got going things would settle out, but the day before any war is a tense one. Even a war of sanitation.
The Military had set up a perimeter around the city to keep out any civilians trying to come back in; foragers hovered around the edges like vultures around a decaying body. Mourners were there too, and at night you could see the candles light up the opposing bank across the river, reflected in the water, like stars fallen to earth. I watched them long into the night from my bunk, until they became a blur and mixed with my dreams, where armies of businessmen missing their heads marched through the streets with a purpose, on their way to nowhere.
I don’t know if it was the President who thought it would work, or if his advisors in the cabinet were pulling the strings, whispering in his ear. It doesn’t matter anymore, though sometimes I wonder how things would have turned out otherwise. Popularity polls were down in the wake of a long span of terrorist threats and small scale attacks, the economy had been on a downward swing as of late, and the attacks on the City pretty much crushed any hope of an approval rating jump for the top brass. People were grieving, and as they say, one of the stages of grief is anger. And, boy oh boy, how people were ANGRY. Protests had already begun around the country for definitive action against the nations that had attacked, but even when we levied the most devastating and indiscriminate destruction in history on the poverty-stricken totalitarian regime, the bloodlust was not satisfied. People wanted more, they wanted something to heal their wounds, to make things right, and they wanted it NOW. And that’s exactly what the President and his men were going to do.
The morning after we were brought in to the Compound, we finally got to see what was on the other end of that umbilical hallway. There was an auditorium set up with some of the finest AV gear I had ever seen, not to mention a huge array of Cray VII computers synched up in row after row of blinking lights and a steady, almost sub-auditory hum. In the far corner there was what looked like an assembly line, gigantic lasers hovering over a conveyor belt and, almost too fast for the eye to see, a hard red glow on pieces of glass no larger than a slide. The conveyor belt led through a hole in the far wall, dropping off into a black nothingness, something glittering on the edges before passing into darkness. There was a murmuring among the crowd before we were called to attention by the General in charge of the operation. After a brief speech about our commitment to our country in the wake of a Natural disaster and how thankful the Country and the President were for our efforts, the lights dimmed and a video started.
It was like one of those videos you see in grade school, the ones that teach you about how little Suzy can get sick if she doesn’t wash her hands, or how little Billy shouldn’t play with fire and gasoline because he might blow his fucking hand off. It was that insulting, but fascinating nonetheless. The video started with the (now-familiar) metallic half moon of the Aries Corporation, and as the music swelled, the logo and lettering burst apart into thousands of buglike machines, scurrying off the edges of the screen.
This faded into your typical white-coat lab scientist who, of course, was Dr. Steinhoff, though we didn’t know who the hell he was at the time. He really was wearing the lab coat, and box glasses, the whole bit, just like the statues. He welcomed his unseen audience and then, with computer generated effects worthy of the best of Hollywood, explained the purpose and function of the nano-cleaners.
Now, nanotechnology had been around for a while, and had been used in some of the more advanced laptops and VR sets because of size and power efficiency, but this was another thing altogether. As Steinhoff pointed and droned on professorially, we watched schematics on how the machines worked. Smaller than the top of a pin, the nanomachines could recombine structures on the atomic level, taking dirt and rubble and making it into a smooth wall. Or a table. Or a concrete slab.
This was amazing in and of itself and drew oohs and aaahs from the crowd, but what came next was both incredible and frightening. The machines, on their own, couldn’t really think. They were too small to do that, and would have to be directed by a larger program to reconstruct anything, because how would they know what to construct? Well, Steinhoff and his team of scientist-magicians had found a way around this. They wirelessly linked the nanomachines together to create something capable of supreme pattern recognition. The more machines, the faster and more accurate it became.
“Now, like the brain of the human itself, the machines can make connections, test and retest their observations, correct and recombine structures according to a logical plan, in less time than it takes for you to drink a glass of water,” said Dr. Steinhoff, raising a glass of water to his lips and drinking as, magically, a new glass appeared on the table out of the wreckage of one he had just dropped.
That was the pitch. These machines weren’t intelligent on their own, but start linking them together and they became a supercomputer. A simple supercomputer whose only commands were “analyze structure” and “rebuild structure,” but a supercomputer nonetheless.
As the lights came up n the auditorium there was a burst of chatter, a rising tide of excitement rushing through the group as the hive mind began to take over. I’ll admit it, I was excited myself in spite of my doubt, and the things I had seen boded well for the future of our country. The ability to recombine atoms meant an end, ostensibly, to poverty, garbage, illness, and a whole host of material woes. Beyond that was the chance to be part of history, and of course, what ego can deny that? We went to bed that night with minds aglow with the thought of the next day, nervous and excited. But, of course, we never asked the simple and obvious question: why are we here?
The next day I was up at dawn, 06:00 hours, and ran myself through a regimen of calisthenics. My wristwatch beeped when my heart rate hit 180, and I slowed down just slightly to keep things smooth. We had been told to congregate in the auditorium where we would see, first hand, the working of the nanomachines. There was an agitated hum over the whole group, and many of the others had also been up at dawn and run themselves through their own particular routines. There was a fight in one of the other barracks, and I saw one man weeping silently at one of the window slats, a thin line of yellow light making his eyes glisten whenever his head was at the right angle.
When we got to the auditorium, the large screen was now populated by almost a hundred camera shots of various parts of the city. Most people gasped as they entered the room and had to be ushered along by some of the armed guards in faceless black masks. I could understand it when I entered the room myself and saw a hundred reminders of the place I had loved, all hundred showing the ruins.
It was PR, plain and simple, not newsfeed but video that could be edited later into stunning vidbites set to triumphant and glorious music. And it was, of course, as you can find on any library site with even a half-decent video archive. They had set up movable cameras on robotic bases to cover the rebuilding, starting from the edge to follow the worker machines inward. As we took our seats we saw the trucks pulling up to the edges of the city, surrounded by more guards in Teflon and masks. The beds of the trucks looked like they were empty, until you saw the black start to glitter as the cameras focused in. Then you realized you were looking at a wave of thousands upon thousands of the machines, an ocean readying itself to break past levies and banks. It wasn’t until the siren rang and this massive wave rolled out of the trucks to disperse into nothingness that I heard the release of a collective held breath, and realized part of that breath was my own.
It was like watching magic, the way that you believed in magic when you were a kid, long before you knew there were trick hats that rabbits got pulled out of and things like sleight of hand. As the invisible tsunami of machines swarmed over the city, on each camera you could see towers beginning to rebuild themselves, rubble disappearing to be replaced by glass and concrete, and a thin sheen of glistening sparks where, just beyond perception, tiny bugs were recombining reality.
The joy of watching the City come back to life was short-lived. There was a shout from the front of the room. I saw a soldier pointing to one of the right-hand screens and looked to see what was wrong. I missed it initially because the camera had shifted, but it didn’t matter. On another screen where a camera had approached the body of a fallen woman, face half missing and the remains of her stomach coated in rubble and dust, I watched in absolute horror as her face began to reknit itself, her dress returning to an azure blue from dust-coated grey at the same rate her stomach retreated into her body and the wound in her belly and her dress mended themselves.
Somewhere behind me, people began vomiting, and I wanted to stop watching, but I couldn’t. One of the woman’s shoes had come off and I could see the tendons in her feet building layer upon layer until the skin appeared, and I was reminded of those science books where you could look the different cross-sections of the human body on cellophane sheets, stacking them all on top of one another to create a whole human body. Then, as the body fully returned to its complete state, it gave a jerk like someone had stuck a hand in a light socket. Her eyes flew open and her newly remade holographic name tag flew past the camera long enough to get her name. Deborah. “Deborah, Debbie, Deb.” My mind started to repeat this over and over again as I watched her eyes slowly track across the office. There was something horribly wrong with them, something blank and empty, and as the thing that had been Deborah (Debbie, Deb) spasmodically twitched her legs trying to stand, I could feel the nausea welling up in my stomach. Across other monitors the same thing was happening as the zombies rose from their rebuilt tombs. Back on the screen Deborah was on her feet and walking now, hitting a wall repeatedly. Each time she hit it she would step back, adjust her hair, and walk forward. Hit the wall. Step back. Adjust hair. It was like one of those robots in the technology museum, the ones that will hit a wall until its slight turn allows it to walk unimpeded in another direction.I ran out of the room and back through the umbilical hallway until I reached the junction and vomited all over the plastic walls.
The question, ultimately, was answered, but not in a way that the President would have liked. The first reason we were there, and I didn’t realize this until much later, was to be cogs in the PR machine. Everyone who had been chosen had an emotional connection to the city for some reason, and had the rebuilding been successful, we would make the perfect posterboys for the rebuilding effort. Marines and Soldiers bred for pride in the country aglow with amazement at the wonder of these fabulous new machines. “Well, gosh, I can’t believe my own eyes, sir, it really is something, golly gee whiz.”
Unfortunately, the second reason we were there was in the event of something going wrong. The programmers had assured everyone that the nanomachines were failsafe. They were told to go into the city, analyze the structure and rebuild and ensure everything was in proper working order. Once this was done, they were told to self terminate to provide fodder for machines which hadn’t completed their task, and to prevent anyone outside learning their secrets.
But they didn’t self terminate, and they didn’t respond to a master recall command. We waited for a week while the programmers and scientists tried everything they could think of, even bringing back in some of the damaged people to try and figure out what was going on. Ultimately we found that the machines had done their job too well.
What is a human being? Is it a mind, a heart, emotions, a vessel for genes to transmit themselves? Is it merely a collection of simple machines all running together in concert to create one great complex machine? That, at least to the nanotech mind, is what we were. And, if this is true, how could they be sure that this complex machine was running properly? Well, of course, by starting it up and making sure that it was functioning. But then, once you have started up this finely balanced, unfathomably complex machine, how do you know that it is functioning correctly? A powerplant, a lightbulb, even a computer makes a certain mathematically perfect sense. Their purpose is inherent in their structure, and in the great organism that is the City, each plays a crucial role. A human being, that is a different thing altogether.
It took the science geeks less than a week to figure it out. They watched the monitors for clues, and examined the things that looked like people which were brought in from the City. The machines were told to make sure everything was functioning correctly and then self-terminate, and the human beings were a conundrum. The first ones they “booted up,” as the scientists began to call it, could do little more than twitch and breathe, a purely mechanical functioning being. Then, they saw certain patterns emerge. People who had stayed in their offices began to sit at their computers and type. Factory workers began to go through the motions of their job, putting pieces on conveyor belts. The machines reviewed their musculature and determined each to be suited for that particular purpose. Who knows how far it would have gone; would yoga instructors be seen doing Down Dog in the Park to a rapt and suddenly expert population of followers? Would prostitutes be seen giving hand jobs to CEO’s in their offices, while they dialed into endless conference calls?
Ultimately, they realized the job would never be finished. The homeless, the jobless, the people wandering the streets might never be found to have a purpose. They would be built and rebuilt and rebuilt until it made some sort of sense to the machines, but we didn’t have that much time. We would be the cleanup. We would be the machines that cleaned up the parts of the city that truly served no purpose: the poor, vestigial people.
I don’t remember much from going in. Just a sense of numb horror and unreality at the whole thing. I remember a dog, remade for god knows why, howling a clipped and repeated pattern into an echoing and empty city until someone muzzled it and threw it in the truck. When we walked through the gates the air was cleaner than it could be, no smog, no haze, no grime to be found. Cars were immaculately clean, and I remember wiping some dust from my glove on the windshield only to watch it disappear a moment later. Magic. Black Magic.
It took months, and they had to bring countless other units in for the cleanup. They started to show (safe) footage of the nanomachines to the public, promising that the delay in letting people back into the city was a “security measure.” In the meantime we stacked idiot workers into trucks for “disposal” back at the base. They were using nanomachines to destroy the bodies, no trace that way. Funny, isn’t it, one machine to rebuild, another to destroy. Fucking hilarious.
During one of our runs I came upon a man sitting calmly in a three piece suit at an old-fashioned typewriter. It was in a used bookstore whose books had rewritten themselves incorrectly. The machines didn’t understand language yet, but they knew enough to repair pages. He was sitting at his typewriter clicking away feverishly even though there was no more paper to be found. I could see his eyes behind gold rimmed glasses scanning a line over and over on a paper that didn’t exist, and every once and a while he would utter a slight groan and twitch momentarily. There was a piece of paper behind the typewriter which I picked up, folded and put in my pocket before I hoisted him out of the chair to carry him to the truck. Like many of the “zombies,” he twitched furiously when he was taken away from his “work,” and it wasn’t until he was in the truck and locked away that he became any semblance of calm.
In the end, the President was impeached for a scandal involving pedophilia. People had finally moved back to the City and, as humans do, forgot the horrors of the past in favor of the scandals of the moment. Information came out about the cover up with the nanotech revival of humans, and it had a moment of furious debate in Congress and a trial to determine the consequences for those involved. Numerous scientists, doctors, and technicians testified that the people we disposed of were not technically “human,” that they could not truly think and that it would have been even more horrible to let real people see these shells of loved ones. Everyone high up was reprimanded with fines, but it was just a slap on the wrist, and eventually it was forgotten. All video, of course, had been destroyed except for the sanitized versions, and maybe if people had seen the reality of it . . . well, who knows.
I can’t ever go back now to the place that I used to call home. Sometimes I watch it on the television and I grow nostalgic, and then nauseous. Sometimes I think about what life would have been like if I hadn’t gone, but that is too painful to comprehend. Sometimes I can’t sleep at night and end up spending hours staring at the folded piece of paper that I always keep in my pocket. It just says, in neat typewritten Book Antiqua size 12 Font:
“please. kill me.”
Over and over and over again.